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The smell of stale beer, and a view of Big Ben

By Gerard Gallagher, Olympics Writer

London, England (Sports Network) - The stands rumble with every point, so much so that you think they can't possibly be safe. You've been underneath, seen the Erector Set bowels of the temporary Olympic beach volleyball venue and are left wondering: Was a seat in the top row with a view of Big Ben worth it?

The answer, of course, is yes.

How many arenas' clocks are also a World Heritage site?

Since its Olympic debut at Atlanta in 1996, beach volleyball has increasingly become a hot ticket. The sport, played by men and women sometimes wearing very little, is the snowboarding of the Summer Olympics. It's to be enjoyed with a beer, if that's your thing, and not to be taken too seriously, unless you're one of the athletes playing for a medal -- a very serious thing, indeed.

"We want to play in front of this crowd right here," NBA star Carmelo Anthony said Wednesday night before watching two-time reigning gold medalists Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh of the U.S.

In London, the sport is played at Horse Guards Parade, almost literally on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's office and residence, and not far from Buckingham Palace where the queen lives.

It's named for the soldiers who have protected the British monarch since 1660 and is still the site of the queen's official birthday celebrations every year.

"I think we have got the best location of the entire Olympics," said U.S. player April Ross.

It's certainly the most regal.

You enter across the street from Trafalgar Square and down the queen's own driveway, past stately buildings and statues and under the flags of Great Britain and, at least for the time being, the Olympics.

It's minutes before the smell of stale beer hits you in the beak and you remember you're going to a beach volleyball game and not a Diamond Jubilee party.

The vapors are everywhere, thickest inside the stadium but still plainly identifiable outside of it.

Later, after the party breaks up quickly like the cops have just knocked on the front door, two distinct sounds remain: the tolling of Big Ben and the clattering of empty plastic cups blown down rows of the arena like frathouse tumbleweeds.

They drink a lot in the place. It's got to be the only Olympic venue where they ask you to drive safely on the way home. Drive? Some of these people shouldn't be walking.

Between the walk in and the stumble out, there's the matter of the volleyball. Exciting, filled with strategy and played at an Olympic level, the sport is really something.

On Wednesday, after May-Treanor and Walsh lost a set for the first time in Olympic play to a pair of Austrian sisters, they dialed it in like a Cy Young winner who gives up three in the first and finishes the game.

The win came after midnight and moved them into the knockout stage of the Olympic tournament.

"Now the fun begins," said Walsh.

You might point out that it had started days earlier, when the London Games kicked off in full on Saturday after a rollicking opening ceremony that was only slightly more raucous than a trip to see beach volleyball.

Among the more amusing things you're likely to see and hear in the venue:

- Groundskeepers raking the sand, doing their Benny Hill-best while "Yakety Sax" blares through the speakers.

- Dancers gyrating to rock music that plays frequently, a now-common Olympic beach volleyball tradition.

- An announcer who calls for enough noise to wake up British Prime Minister David Cameron, and who goads spectators to picks sides.

That last one meant a smattering of boos for May-Treanor and Walsh during their latest match -- a hard thing to hear considering all they've done for the sport at the Olympics.

The American stars are beach volleyball royalty, playing just down the drive from the real thing.

"If they want to have tea," Walsh said last week, referring to the royal family, "we are available for that."

A beer would be easier to find. Just follow the smell.

08/02 11:21:55 ET

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